French Dialects Fight for Survival in the United States

Integration and the law forced Francophones in the United States to abandon their language in the early 20th century, and language enthusiasts are now fighting for its survival. Paw Paw was a dialect spoken by the first French settlers to colonize the Midwest, and is being kept alive in classes taught by a young American linguist in Missouri. Other French dialects in Louisiana and Maine have also been threatened with extinction, but are refusing to go quietly.
At the 2014 World Acadian Congress. © Twin Bridges Photography

The small town of Old Mines in the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri is home to the descendants of 17th-century French settlers. A sign near the local bar & grill and the church reads Bienvenue à La Vieille Mine. The town was once part of the former French Louisiana which stretched across Illinois, Missouri and Indiana, and today a handful of its inhabitants stand out from the Anglophone crowd with a certain phrasing and an exotic accent.

Paw Paw: A French Dialect from Missouri

Francophone settlers travelled from Canada and Louisiana through the Mississippi Valley to finally arrive in Illinois, where they worked in the lead and coal mines some 300 years ago. But according to linguists and natives of the region, only around 30 people still speak Paw Paw French fluently. Linguist Joseph-Médard Carrière identified 600 families who spoke Paw Paw on a daily basis in the 1920s, and a study showed there were still around 1,000 people who spoke it in the 1980s.

The disappearance of this dialect can be largely explained by the stigmatization of Francophone languages in the early 20th century. “Paw Paw was associated with ignorance and a lack of education, and people were gradually forbidden from speaking it,” says Joseph-Edward Price, Assistant Professor of French and Applied Linguistics at Texas Tech University and a specialist of Francophone dialects. “At the time, students who spoke Paw Paw were rapped on the knuckles!”

Nevertheless, some are eager to revive the dialect, such as Nathanael Cruise Alire, 21, a linguistics student originally from Denver, Colorado. His passion for the Missouri French dialect led him to create a non-profit organization, Illinois Country French Preservation, with Brandon Curry, co-founder of the education and training services start-up Harvest Education. The duo began teaching the first Paw Paw classes last summer in Ste. Genevieve, a town in Missouri founded in the mid-1730s by French Canadians.

“We had around 15 regular students spread across two weekly lessons, and the course lasted five weeks. The youngest student was 12 and the oldest was 93! We’re going to try to do the same thing next summer”, says Nathanael, who learned Paw Paw from Kent Bone, an Old Mines native. “I have no Francophone origins. My family has Hispanic roots and is originally from Northern New Mexico, but I have found a lot of cultural similarities between my people and the Old Mines natives.”

Rebuilding the dialect from the ground up is also the objective of historian and musician Dennis Stroughmatt. After growing up in Vincennes, Indiana, where he was introduced to French Creole and its musical folklore, he spent three years in Old Mines in the 1990s. He has since become an ambassador for the dialect through his songs. “I enjoy recounting old tales in French I first heard from a storyteller in Old Mines called Pete ‘Paco’ Boyer,” he says. “Without music, art and stories we risk losing our culture, and ultimately, our language.”

Acadian: French Heritage in Maine

Other Francophone dialects have been gradually eroded by discrimination and illegalization throughout the years. Acadian was a dialect spoken in Maine by French settlers who arrived in 1600. The modern state of Maine was discovered by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century, and was part of French Acadia until the 1750s when it fell under English rule. The first Francophone influences were bolstered by the arrival of one million French-Canadian immigrants looking for a better life in the 19th century.

The upper valley of the Saint John River in the north of the state is home to the highest number per capita of Francophone natives who speak Acadian in the United States. Some 84 % of the 4,035 inhabitants of Madawaska still speak the French dialect according to a 2013 study. This is particularly impressive given that a law banned French in public schools from 1919 until the 1960s. The early 20th century also saw Francophones and Catholics in New England come under fierce attack from the Ku Klux Klan.

Joseph-Edward Price published a study on Maine’s American-Canadian community, and observed that a significant number of people now “prefer to speak English even when given the choice. When in Quebec, for example, they tend to feel embarrassed or are worried their French is not the right French.”

The proximity of Acadian communities, including in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, to the Atlantic Ocean has lent the language a certain naval vocabulary. “Take a seat” in Acadian translates as hale une chaise, from the verb haler, “to tow”. Several structures are in place to document and promote Acadian, such as a team at the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine which studies the Franco-American landscape in Maine and across the United States. The objective is to foster the education of French in schools and universities, despite the current budget cuts.

The University of Maine recently removed French classes from its program due to insufficient numbers of students, but other initiatives have been put forward. The Ecole Française du Maine in South Freeport offers immersive courses in French for Franco-American families, and the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston showcases Francophone art and culture.

French in Louisiana

Moving to the other side of the country, French has been a predominant language in Louisiana since the arrival of settlers in 1700. But the introduction of a new constitution in 1921 endangered French by making it undesirable, and even illegal in some cases. And it was not an isolated event. There are a wealth of anecdotes describing the negative image of French and its dialects throughout certain periods of American history.

One such example occurred in 1968. After decades of repression, French was given a new lease of life with the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL). But the Cajun-born democrat representative James Domengeaux opposed teaching Cajun French in favor of European French. “Can you imagine teaching Cajun French? It would be like teaching redneck English,” he said at the time.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 150,000 Louisianans (3.5% of the state’s population) say they speak French or French Creole at home. There are three longstanding French dialects native to Louisiana: Colonial French, spoken by French people in the upper, property-owning classes; Modern Louisiana French, spoken by the Acadians who arrived in Louisiana after the Seven Years’ War, and Louisiana Creole French, an informal dialect derived from Colonial French but grammatically closer to Haitian Creole.

The Cajun French dialect is derived from Colonial French, and was spoken before the arrival of the Acadians. Over time this dialect integrated words from Spanish, English and African and Native American languages, and today is still spoken by Native American tribes such as the Houmas, the Biloxi, the Choctaw, and the Chitimacha.

Paw Paw and those who defend it have enough support to continue championing French dialects in the United States. We can only hope that “We are still here” will still be translated by On est toujours icitte for centuries to come.

Article published in the March 2016 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.